17 February 2011
Jamaica in the days of slavery, thoughtlessly brutal white owners…. Historical novels dealing with the human cost of Britain’s colonial past have not been a rarity on Man Booker shortlists in recent years, so Andrea Levy must have decided that if she was going to tackle this aspect of her heritage, she was going to have to work hard to make it engaging. In Small Island she had several voices telling the story. In this novel most of the work is done by the single voice of her first-person narrator.
Levy spends some pages before we hear that voice. First we get a prologue in the style of an Editor’s Preface – although it isn’t called that – explaining the existence of the narrative we are about to hear. Then comes a short, in-your-face gritty description of what a routine event it was for a slave woman to find herself being impregnated by a white man; in this world it’s only one step removed from being pushed up against in a crowd. This approach is abandoned after a paragraph, and we’ve leapt forward nine months and into a different style again, a kind of mythologised account of the animal-like shelling of peas that childbirth was to slave mothers working out in the field. This approach lasts a page or two before the narrator – we don’t yet know that it’s the newborn baby, now grown into an old woman – settles down to write a plainer, more plausible version.
There’s still plenty of grit in this narrative of how Kitty, made pregnant by the plantation’s Scottish overseer, gives painful birth to a girl and names it July because it’s one of the few words she was ever taught to write. (The birth takes place in December, in case we were wondering.) But there’s humour too, and within the first chapter a picture builds up of what life was like on a plantation in the first quarter of the 19th Century.
Andrea Levy sticks with this voice – and we recognise the awkward child she describes in the spirited old woman that it belongs to. The preface I mentioned is written by her son, in the printing business and proud of his ability to make sense of even the most indecipherable manuscripts. His relationship with his mother – especially her frequent complaints about his demands over the way she writes her story – are a framing device that also punctuates the narrative. (Salman Rushdie has a very similar device in Midnight’s Children, another novel full of tricky family relationships and boiling vats of foodstuffs.) And if the world she describes feels plausible, the same can’t really be said of the way this half-educated woman uses language. But… I’m ok with it, because it’s so entertaining.
July is able to give us proper insights into the plantation owners because Levy has her whisked into the big house at the age of eight to be a maid. The owner’s widowed sister is a recent arrival in Jamaica and, as he dryly points out, she is still at the stage of finding black children charming. (This goes with his dry comment about how she still loves the preserves made from Jamaican fruit. She’ll soon be craving imported strawberry jam like everybody else.) Their assumption that the sudden loss of her only child will be unimportant to the mother – ‘they’re all such dreadful mothers’ – is belied by Kitty’s secret nightly pilgrimages to the window of the house to catch a glimpse of her daughter.
Why don’t these chapters seem too grim or predictable? We get the swift realisation by Caroline, the widow, that life in Jamaica is going to be horrible – there’s a wonderful reference to the noises made by her brother and sister-in-law in bed, audible past walls that don’t reach the ceiling – and we get the slave’s-eye-view of the all-round silliness of the white owners and their infantile inability to do anything for themselves. We get July’s new name, ‘Marguerite’, which she answers to whilst treating the idea with the contempt it deserves. (The tv was on earlier today, and it was the scene in Roots where Kunta Kinte is whipped until he accepts his slave name. July, like all the house-slaves, is far more pragmatic.)
In fact, July’s life until the age of 16 – the narrative has leapt forward this amount of time for reasons that become clear later – is rather sheltered compared to those of the field slaves. It gives Levy the chance to turn her determinedly unsentimental gaze on to any hopes we might have about solidarity amongst the blacks. There are the same petty jealousies as there are among any other group of people forced into one another’s company – and there is the frank display of prejudice about skin colour and other African features. Clara, the house-slave of other plantation owners, is envied for being a ‘quadroon’ with pale skin and narrow lips; the lighter any slave’s skin, the ‘higher’ the colour. (Toni Morrison turns this idea on its head in Paradise, in which a community of African Americans is proud to trace its ancestry back eight generations, unsullied by any white taint. 8-ball, they call it, and we know how black that is.)
Where was I? ‘The plantation named Amity’ – they tend to have these fine-sounding names, which Levy doesn’t feel any need to comment on – is not well run. The owner, widowed shortly after July moves into the house, has been depressed and ineffectual ever since, and Caroline tries to govern the slaves with threats that they know she will never carry out despite her occasional acts of petty cruelty. (When July makes a mess of a repair in the early days, Caroline coolly stabs her four times with a needle in the hand – a punishment July never forgives.)
Anyway, before Chapter 10 we’re approaching Christmas 1831 – a date which, if history was taught differently, would resound with significance. Most white British readers, like me, will not be aware that the set-piece chapter based on this date is about to turn into something beyond another demonstration of white arrogance and the small victories the house-slaves seek to achieve. We’re getting examples of both of these when the narrative takes us somewhere new. July is surreptitiously passing bottles of liquor out of the window during the show-off Christmas dinner that Caroline is putting on for the neighbours. She’s been spotted by one of the guests – and now he’s being as surreptitious as she just was, drawing her closer to his chair at the table and fingering her under her clothes.
So far, so routine. But suddenly there’s news of some kind of rebellion. For pages now there’s been a rumour going around that the king in England is about to free all slaves, and some slaves seem to be acting on it. Or were they the ones to start he rumour? July doesn’t know, and that’s what Levy is far more interested in anyway: the slipperiness of the ‘truth’. The local militia has arrived to tell all the men to get their guns and join in the suppression of the revolt. (It isn’t put like this, obviously.) After her brother and all the guests leave, Caroline is left alone with July. She is devastated, not by fear – she’s far too unimaginative for that – but by the realisation that instead of the high-status Irish linen table-cloth she specified, her table has been laid with an old bed-sheet. It’s one of those small victories for the house-slaves – and Levy does not need to make any comment about what this white woman finds to occupy her mind.
These chapters take us from the phoney war of the first uprising – phoney because the ten-day revolt brings about no change – to the actual emancipation of the slaves six years later. In fact, we don’t follow the slow process: Part 2 ends when it becomes clear that it’s to be business as usual, and Part 3 begins, teasingly, with a funeral. We take it to be that of one of the characters whose death has just been the trigger for a series of terrible events, but in fact it’s a ceremony to celebrate the death of slavery in 1838. I’ll come back to the history, and how Levy’s characters fit into it…. But what I found most interesting in these chapters is the way she deals with the idea of history itself. From the beginning, when there’s that (deliberately) self-conscious series of false starts before July’s narrative gets under way, one of the central themes of this novel has been to do with the ways that stories get told and the idea that events come packaged in a lot of different versions. Levy even signals to us that July’s version is prone to a certain amount of embroidery or self-serving omissions. I’ll come back to that as well.
Versions. In her narrative, Levy has July use this word – as she must, because the miasma of half-truths and exaggerations that are told after the uprising is distilled down to one event in her life, and one fat lie. Levy moves the plot along in order to get July and a freed slave into, then under, the master’s bed. This is during the days after Christmas, when even Caroline has left the plantation and the slaves think they’ve won. July has been drinking wine, for the first time in her life, encouraged by the freed slave, Nimrod. When she eventually wakes up next to him in the bed she hears voices: the master and his sister are back. And this is why they are under the bed when the master shoots himself a short time later – and how Caroline is able to claim that he was brutally murdered.
Levy takes the the idea of versions of the truth to a different level. First, Caroline simply cannot believe that her brother would perform an act that is forbidden by God, and as soon as her overseer finds Nimrod in the room she has her get-out. She will get to keep the plantation and have a story to dine out on for years. Very soon, she comes to believe her own embroidered version of this story – and the version of herself who features in it. Now, in her own mind, she is resourceful, quick-thinking, capable – to the extent that when other landowners offer to buy her out, she believes that she will be able to run the plantation on her own. Hah. After six years she’s brought it close to ruin, and Levy has her bemoaning the fact that whenever her overseers walk out on her – there have been ten so far, July thinks, or eleven – she can never think of the clever response to their complaints that would force them to see how wrong they are. (When Levy lets us hear the witty rejoinders that Caroline thinks of hours too late, they’re rubbish anyway.)
There are other competing versions of other events. When the overseer finally pursues Nimrod and July to the slave compound the overseer shoots him and goes looking for her. Kitty hears about this. She hasn’t been near July for eight years, and we know how fixed she can be in her determination. She beats the overseer almost to death and is later executed. But part-way through this, July – i.e. Levy – deals with the widely differing accounts subsequently offered by witnesses. It’s a short digression, but it keeps the idea ticking over. So do those occasions when July refers to the ‘gossipy’ way that information is conveyed and transformed as it makes its way around the island. I’m sure there must be others.
And even this isn’t all. As I was reading these chapters I really began to think that Levy is deliberately pushing some authorial boundaries. For a start, there’s the title of the novel. We could interpret it as a reference to July’s long life, with the narrative we’re reading representing the distillation of 80 years of her own story – and the stories of many other people. Fine. But I think it’s a century and more longer than that: this is the long song that Andrea Levy is telling us, largely in her own voice, in 2010. She’s offering 21st Century readers a history which, as I’ve already suggested, does not usually get told.
I don’t think I’m being fanciful. Days ago, when I first started writing about this novel, I said that I was ok with the implausibility of ‘the way this half-educated woman uses language’. Now, I’m also ok with the fact that in one particular chapter July tells us things that she could have no real knowledge of: the atrocities performed by the whites following the attempted revolt, and the effect of these on her master. The narrative here is unashamedly novelistic and contains insights into the workings of Mortimer’s mind that offer an explanation of his suicide. Reader, as she might say, this isn’t July’s narrative any more, it’s Andrea Levy’s. If this story is going to be told properly, she seems overtly to be telling us, she isn’t going to hobble herself with the language of a largely self-taught former slave who has never written creatively in her life. Levy is going to use every last one of the skills she has developed over decades.
There was a time when a novelist would have attempted to persuade us that this is indeed the voice of the first-person narrator – otherwise, well, it would make it too hard to believe that we are reading a genuine account. Even in this novel, Levy begins with that old-fashioned preface purporting to give it a kind of provenance…. But it’s a game. (Martin Amis plays a slightly different game in The House of Meetings, when he pretends to explain away the impossibly erudite English prose of his Russian narrator – who tends to quote Auden – by having him describe how he once knew an Englishwoman with a taste for poetry.) In The Long Song we are supposed to recognise this as the voice of a modern writer: the story demands it.
What haven’t I told you? You know about the short-lived rebellion and the suicide, and I’ve probably dropped enough hints about the horrific reprisals. July is traumatised by the death of her mother – she witnesses the hanging in a three-person gibbet – and is punished for her part in the alleged crime. With Part 3 comes a new order that doesn’t feel new at all – and a new character. Following the exit of overseer No 10 (or 11) we get the arrival, on the day of emancipation, of an idealistic-sounding new one. He’s the son of a preacher, and Caroline immediately comes over all starry-eyed in his presence. He tells her he needs her to come down to the blacks’ compound: it’s his job to tell the ex-slaves that they might be working for wages from now on, but what will be expected is… etc. Goodbye slavery, welcome to a life of wage-slavery.
One last thing. At the end of Part 2 we get one of those intrusions from the old woman’s experience of writing: for a chapter she refuses to write any more because of interference from her son. He wants her to tell the reader about – guess what – the child who was born to her following her drunken night in bed with Nimrod. This is one of those omission that first-person narrators are prone to: July isn’t proud of having left the baby – coal-black and ugly – at the door of the Baptist minister… from whom he receives a 5-star education. That’s all right, then. (We even get quotes from the article about him, written by the minister’s wife. So, yet another version of events – and we’re getting it because it shows July in a more favourable light. She hadn’t known about the article before, and had been trying to hide the truth – but now she can contrast his favoured existence with her own at the same time. Which is where Part 3 begins.
I’m becoming more impressed by this book the longer it goes on.
I was getting ahead of myself when I mentioned wage-slavery. In fact there’s a kind of phoney peace following emancipation, and it’s becoming clear that freedom is no longer going to mean the easy-going lifestyle the ex-slaves have enjoyed for a year or two. Goodwin, the man who arrives as the kindly new overseer, is now the master. And he seems to have been taking lessons in 19th Century capitalism (no different, now I think of it, from 21st Century global capitalism). But we don’t see the beginnings of this approach until Part 4, and there’s most of Part 3 to cover first.
When Goodwin first arrives it’s clear that he isn’t like any white man seen before. He is considerate, genuinely sees the blacks as human beings rather than chattels, and speaks to them politely. His preacher father has brought him up to be – what? – a bit like a liberal white man in our own time: to him, the former slaves are employees now, and he seems not to treat skin colour as a sign of insurmountable difference. And in the next few chapters, as he begins to notice July, Levy goes for a kind of parody of early 19th Century romantic fiction. She even has July mention a novel that Caroline once lent her for reading practice, with its two silly white women looking for husbands.
We are shown the realities of this particular ritual amongst the black community, and it isn’t going to be pretty. CClara is reintroduced – Reader, you remember Clara, July declares – so that Levy can spell it out: with her around we know it’s all going to be about colour. She now organises dances to which white men are invited – but she only allows women with some white blood already in their veins to attend. We see how things operate in this world in a couple of set-piece scenes. First, when July tells Clara she has a white father, we have the close physical examination that Clara insists on, complete with assessments of nose, lips and hair. In passing, we get a lesson on the outcomes of couplings between ‘mulattoes’, ‘quadroons’ and ever whiter categories. The ultimate aim, of course, is the child that is indistinguishable from a white person.
July is mortified by Clara’s condescension, and avoids her until, one day, she is too late to escape and Clara catalogues her inexorable rise up the social scale. (It’s pathetic, of course: she runs a shop, little more than a booth, and is not really the wife of a white man as she pretends. I was reminded of a different Man Booker contender, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn in which it’s the owners of shops and pubs at the top of the social ladder.) July is trapped when Goodwin arrives in his pony-trap. His arrival brings about a set-piece rom-com scene with a bitter racial twist. It isn’t Clara he looks at, it’s July, and he even asks her if he can give her a lift home. She is actually going the opposite way, but that doesn’t stop her from climbing up and her triumph is complete.
This is July’s story, but it’s Levy’s too, and she gives it a scratchy edginess. It isn’t just an old woman’s happy memory, obviously: both these scenes with Clara are a reminder of what generations of oppression can do to the sense of self-worth of a community. When July climbs into the pony-trap she can think of absolutely nothing finer in the world.
Levy takes it somewhere else again. There have been enough hints before this for us to guess that the idealistic young white man – who genuinely speaks to July as an equal – is attracted to her. And we see how his actions, governed by the imperatives of his tortured Christian conscience, are unintelligible to her. She has no models for the behaviour between white men and black women – or any men and women – beyond her own sordid experience and what she knows of her own parentage. She has literally no idea what is holding him back, tries – usually wrongly – to second-guess the correct response…. She certainly doesn’t understand when, after a couple more meetings, he pushes her away in a kind of agony. (There’s some rather broad humour to do with her ignorance of the Bible and her misunderstanding of the ‘Father’ he appeals to for strength.)
But Levy moves it on again. Some weeks pass, and he is leaving Caroline’s house when, looking highly satisfied, he tells her he has a plan. She goes into the house to discover he is about to marry the white woman. Then… we get something of a lurch. Somewhere in these chapters somebody makes the remark that, for all his qualities, Goodwin is still a white man. And he starts to behave like one. Suddenly, it’s ok for him to have a wife upstairs – with whom he has sex once in the first year of marriage, July tells us – and a black mistress downstairs. He even manages to square this with what his father – his real one – would advocate and what God would approve of. He treats Caroline with a kind of contempt, lying to her about why he arrives home so tired every night, and why he only goes to bed to sleep.
This behaviour prepares us for the way he starts to deal with the ex-slaves. At first he seems about to plead with them when they refuse to work more than four days a week. They can afford to take time off because they have ‘provision grounds’ where they can grow all they need to eat, and more, or can fish in the local river. He becomes exasperated, then angry, and begins to refer of them as other white people do, as feckless and ungrateful. In reality, the power relationship has been skewed by the existence of the blacks’ alternative means of providing for themselves: they can work ‘as it suits’.
This is when Goodwin turns into a capitalist – or when he decides to redress the power balance, which amounts to the same thing. He decides to set the rent for the provision grounds at an impossibly high rate, so that the blacks will have no alternative but to give up their land and work for him. At the point I’ve reached, there is talk of a boycott: the blacks will not work for him, and they won’t pay a penny in rent for land they have always worked for nothing. Oh dear.
Meanwhile, over the year or so that has passed since the start of the cosy arrangement in the big house, what about July? It’s hard to say, because Levy largely leaves her alone – which is strange when it’s supposed to be her story. She appears in scenes – of the life of domestic bliss Goodwin has arranged for himself or, later, as the traitor she has become in the eyes of the blacks as she puts Goodwin’s demands into words they understand. She only takes centre stage, almost literally, in the chapter dealing with the proud family portrait.
In this whole section, this is the chapter in which Levy turns her attention back most fully to the idea of versions. The Goodwins, especially Caroline, want a version of themselves to parade before their friends. The local artist seems to have seen Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews – a painting like it is described – and so husband and wife are to be shown before the ‘tropical idyll’ of their plantation. Except… Caroline is shown so slim as to be unrecognisable, the land is shown without the unsightly shacks of the black workers and..a and a lot of things. July is in there, originally as a bit of local colour serving her mistress some sweetmeats, but turning into the only object of Goodwin’s attention. Later, when July gives birth to a fair-skinned child, the painting looks like a mockery. Why does Goodwin look so satisfied while his wife, well, doesn’t?
There are scenes in which, again, we hear the versions of different witnesses. There’s another interlude in which July stops her narrative to hide from her son while he reads about the sister about whom he knows nothing. (We don’t know what is to happen to her yet.) But, basically, I’m glad to leave the dark comedy of social manners and get back to the less subtle battles and power-games being fought between Goodwin and the workers. So far the second half of the novel hasn’t felt as sure-footed as the first.
Chapter 29 to the end
Things pick up again… except I’m never convinced by the Robert Goodwin once he’s morphed into, essentially, a different character from the one who arrived at Amity. Levy needs him to behave badly in order to make certain points starting, I suppose, with that jaundiced-sounding view that even the kindest white man is still just that, a white man. He needs to become the archetype of idealism gone sour, but Levy goes further than that. The way he faces off the threat from the blacks is such a textbook performance it’s as though he’s been reading a copy of Oppression for Dummies. If not, where on earth did he learn the necessary form of words, the necessary degree of force, the correct amount of cant regarding the workers’ duty to their employer and the gratitude they should be feeling? It seems to me that Levy sacrifices characterisation in the pursuit of a rather clunking message that seems just too schematic.
Whatever. Goodwin comes to represent global capitalism, complete with what seems to be an understanding of power relationships and the hypocritical show of Bible-quoting righteous anger. He even understands how the prospect of plundered goods and livestock will sweeten it for the gang of thugs he’s hired to undertake his scorched earth policy. It’s as though, by magic, he has learnt how to exploit their venality and, as they change their view of him as a soft touch, they can’t help but show their admiration. The next time we see him his exhausted satisfaction seems almost post-orgasmic: he’s discovered how sexy a brutal demonstration of power can be.
However… he’s got it wrong. Whoever is writing this knows how to feed the reader the extent of his failure bit by novelistic bit: we hear that Goodwin is not well, out in the cane fields; and as the others make their way to where he is, the devastation – and the exodus of the blacks – unfolds before them. And us. The power-balance has shifted so suddenly that Goodwin has felt the foundations of everything pitch beneath him, and we find him trying to harvest the cane single-handed; he’s having some sort of breakdown. He spends weeks in a fever, and Levy is laying the ground for a different power-shift….
With hindsight, I can see that ever since the sexual relationship between Goodwin and July started at the same time as what I called his lurch into white-man behaviour on the plantation. Obviously, at on level these are the same thing: Goodwin exploits the black people over whom he has power. But from where July is standing – or sitting, or carelessly lounging – they aren’t the same thing at all. In the field of sexual politics, she spends a year and more absolutely convinced that she’s won: she isn’t a white man’s plaything, she’s a white woman’s rival, and we know how triumphantly she reports the aridity of Caroline’s experience in bed. This is July’s fatal mistake. Not the triumphalism, but the belief that she means something to Goodwin, that he can see beyond her skin colour.
This becomes clear as Caroline takes charge of his recovery. Robert, she says, mustn’t be allowed to set eyes on any ‘negro’ – well, she would say that – and July is entirely sidelined. This is the other power-shift I mentioned, and the dovetailing is satisfyingly neat. It’s just the start, because, after weeks of her brother’s illness, Caroline has the idea of bringing the baby to him. Previously, little Emily had been the living representative of Caroline’s humiliation – we’ve had plenty of crowing about it from July – but Caroline is going somewhere else with this. The baby makes Goodwin smile for the first time since before his illness, and they are a little white family together for a short time.
Soon, in her room under theirs, Juno can hear the sounds of Goodwin – her husband, she likes to call him – having sex with his real wife. July is still mistakenly thinking about all this at the level of sexual rivalry, and she takes her revenge on him. He is terrified of cockroaches, as Juno knows from the first time she ever met him. Her revenge is to have the boys on the plantation collect a box of them and other assorted monsters over some weeks, store them in a box – and have them served to Goodwin at dinner on a covered platter. How sweet revenge can be, she thinks.
Hah. The whites know all about real power, and we guess the enormity of their own revenge before July does. Neither July nor Levy feels the need to mention it, but it’s history repeating itself when, having taken the baby one last time before their departure for England – supposedly for a temporary recuperative visit – they don’t give her back. And the now favoured servant must have given July something when she came to collect the child, because by the time she wakes up from her sleep, the ship has sailed. Slavery might have ended, but the old power relationships are exactly the same.
If this all sounds straightforward and, given what we all know about slavery and its human cost, a bit predictable… well, it doesn’t feel like that. There’s no straightforward chronology, and, as we’re now used to, we’re just as likely to get the whites’ point of view as July’s, and then (maybe) have those same events re-told from the other side. In fact, from now on until the end of the novel, Levy is at least as interested in forms of narrative as she is about what is supposed to have really happened.
The first thing we get is a happy ever after. July describes her quick recovery from the setback of losing her child and becomes a prosperous dealer in the sorts of preserves that Carla makes (only less well than July, obviously). She makes enough money to open a lodging-house that becomes the first choice of every white visitor to the town. The end, she says – which elicits a curt response from her son in one of those periodic interruptions: if she was so prosperous, who was the emaciated old woman stealing chickens that he met? End of Part 4. Now…
…we get a new version, but from the perspective of Thomas. July tells this story as well, but it’s in the form of an invitation to the reader to have a conversation with him to find which bits he tells about and which he doesn’t. He’s very happy to speak of… etc. but you won’t find him saying anything about… and so on. Like most of Part 5, the style is unapologetically Victorian because, basically, Thomas is a self-made man in the best 19th Century tradition. Through hard work and self-education societies he rises up from printer’s apprentice to owner of the company. The part he allegedly glosses over is to do with how he is emphatically not welcomed into English society; it wouldn’t do in a proud self-help narrative in the best Samuel Smiles mould. After three years of we assume to be unbearable humiliations, he moves to Jamaica.
The two stories come together when, after some years in Jamaica he has finally succeeded in overcoming the prejudices of potential (white) customers. He’s now as prosperous a gent as anybody else, so he can serve on juries – and guess who’s up before the magistrate? The reality of July’s life after the departure of the Goodwins is dealt with quickly: a verbatim report of the arrest read out in court tells us all we need to know of her life of vagrancy and hunger. Her son rescues her and they really do live fairly happily ever after. Fairly. The end, again.
Nope. Thomas isn’t happy for July to leave a 30-year gap…. However, the story of the hand-to-mouth existence of the former Amity slaves on the sparse territory the whites have left alone would be a different novel, and Levy makes sure July understands this. She has her ask a series of rhetorical questions to hint at the misery but leave it alone: ‘Reader, do you really want me to describe the…?’ etc.
In other words, the novel is as riven with false endings as it had been of false starts: this is a long song, Levy seems to be hinting, and it isn’t over yet. Well, no. Thomas insists on an Afterword and, like his Foreword, it places the novel in the tradition of the earliest fiction: the pretence that this is a true story. He is interested in his half-sister and, against July’s advice – white people aren’t usually best pleased to learn of any black ancestors, however remote – he appeals for anyone who knows of her whereabouts to write to him. I wondered why Levy had bothered with this: clearly, Emily wouldn’t dream of making contact with her black near-relations. I suppose it’s her way of reminding us readers that we might not know as much as we think about our 19th Century forebears….
Do I love this novel? It’s monumentally ambitious and, as far as I’m concerned, its self-serving, cantankerous heroine is one of the most interesting narrators I’ve encountered in a while. And I would have been very happy for it to have won the Man Booker prize: I’m reading Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and am finding it thin stuff by comparison.